Ivan Rodriguez Hit His Target: First-Ballot Hall of Famer

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A report by Tyler Kepner for the New York Times.

Ivan Rodriguez played more games as a catcher than anyone else in major league history. He won 13 Gold Glove awards and intimidated runners with the most powerful throwing arm of his generation.

Yet when the Baseball Hall of Fame inducts him next Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., Rodriguez will be joined by two players he never threw out. Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines combined to go 5 for 5 in stolen-base attempts against Rodriguez.

“How about that, right?” Rodriguez said in a recent interview. “And they’re going to be there with me! But, anyway, I threw out a lot of good ones in my career, and that’s O.K. Sometimes you throw people out, and sometimes you don’t.”

If his new Hall of Fame teammates tease him about it, though, Rodriguez can always point to their journeys to enshrinement. Raines needed 10 years on the ballot before the writers elected him, and Bagwell needed seven. Rodriguez made it on the first try.

“That’s a good one to know,” he said. “I’m going to write that down.”

Life is grand these days for Rodriguez, who was honored this month in a ceremony at the All-Star Game, which was hosted by the Marlins, the franchise he led to the 2003 World Series title. His memoir, “They Call Me Pudge,” will be released by Triumph Books on Aug. 1. And his Cooperstown speech is just about ready.

“It’s not going to be long,” Rodriguez said. “I’m going to be doing it in English and Spanish, because my parents are going to be there. I’m looking forward to it, to holding in my feelings, because it’s not going to be easy.”

This summer could have easily been different for Rodriguez. He writes in his book that he badly wanted to be elected on the first ballot so he could match his boyhood hero, Johnny Bench, who is the only other catcher to have done so. He made it by collecting 336 of 442 votes, just four over the minimum needed to reach the 75 percent threshold for election. (The New York Times does not allow its writers to vote for the Hall of Fame.)

The election was more than a referendum on Rodriguez’s career; it was a reflection of the voters’ confidence in Jose Canseco’s claim that he had injected Rodriguez with steroids when they were teammates on the Texas Rangers. Canseco wrote that in “Juiced,” his explosive 2005 account of baseball’s steroids era.

Rodriguez, in his book, wrote that he holds no grudges. Though most of Canseco’s claims turned out to be true, Rodriguez uses his first chapter to dispute the accusation against him.

“I never took steroids,” he writes. “Let’s make that as crystal clear as possible — I never took steroids. If anyone says differently, they are lying.”

Just after the publication of Canseco’s book, Rodriguez reported to the Detroit Tigers’ spring training camp with a starkly leaner physique, leading to speculation that he had suddenly stopped using steroids. In his book, Rodriguez explains that he lost 25 pounds that winter because he was mentally and physically drained by going through a divorce, which had caused him to alter his diet and conditioning.

“I didn’t even hit 20 home runs in a single season after turning 30,” Rodriguez writes. “My career followed the path it should have, and I worked damn hard in the off-season to stay in the condition I needed to.”

Asked if he had relished the chance to counter Canseco in print, Rodriguez replied succinctly: “Everything that I did, I tell you how I did it — with a lot of discipline, a lot of conditioning, a lot of passion about the game. And I was very happy to say that.”

Rodriguez’s induction comes one year after that of another catcher, Mike Piazza, who was often suspected of steroid use despite a lack of convincing evidence. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who had stronger links to performance-enhancing drugs, passed the 50 percent mark in last year’s voting for the first time in five tries. As the Hall of Fame electorate gets younger, it seems, many voters seem more willing to reward the greats of the era, regardless of doping suspicions.

And Rodriguez, clearly, was a giant of his time — a 14-time All-Star who hit .296, won a Most Valuable Player Award and caught those record 2,427 games. He has occasional back soreness, he said, but his knees and his elbow are fine and he has no lingering effects from playing baseball’s most demanding position. He still works out five times a week.

“The conditioning part of it, I love it — it’s not something that I have to do, it’s something that I love to do,” Rodriguez said. “I always enjoy working out, every time, and that’s probably the reason that I feel great right now.”

Rodriguez, 45, will be the second member of the Hall of Fame to be depicted in a Rangers cap on his plaque. The first was Nolan Ryan, who worked five seasons in the majors before Rodriguez was born and ended up pitching to him 46 times.

Ryan wrote a foreword to Rodriguez’s book, but he was not the hardest thrower Rodriguez ever caught. Neither was Justin Verlander in Detroit nor Stephen Strasburg in Washington. It was a Tigers reliever, Joel Zumaya, who Rodriguez said threw 105 miles per hour.

The most dangerous pitcher to catch, for Rodriguez, was probably Kevin Brown, whose hard sinkers bore in on his thumb. But Zumaya, he said, was easy.

“When I catch the ball in my glove, it feels light,” Rodriguez said. “It didn’t feel heavy.”

A different kind of lightness should prevail in Cooperstown next weekend. The heaviness — a snub of a worthy candidate because of claims by Canseco — never happened.

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